In this GTM series, we're asking people in cleantech to tell us what their jobs are like. We hope the series can serve as a source of information and inspiration for recent graduates, professionals planning their careers or anyone who wants to transition into the industry. We also hope it makes cleantech opportunities more visible and accessible to groups that are underrepresented in our growing industry, including women and people of color.

What do HVAC technicians do?

Anatoly Lednyak operates ALED Technologies, a small heating and cooling business based in Manhattan. “Our HVAC technicians respond to emergency calls, troubleshoot and determine next steps as needed,” says Lednyak. “The job is all about problem-solving.”

The HVAC field (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) is split between installation and technician work, with some professionals performing both. According to industry group Advanced Energy Economy, half a million people in the U.S. are employed in the high-efficiency HVAC sector, with another 600,000 spending at least some of their time on the job working with high-efficiency HVAC equipment.

Most companies in the industry, like ALED, have fewer than 10 employees. The company’s technicians are experts on how heating and cooling systems work. Commercial and residential clients call on them to come up with creative solutions to get flawed systems running smoothly again.

“We usually work in large buildings, but whether you’re fixing the smallest house or the biggest building, the questions are the same,” explains Lednyak. “What is it that happens external to this unit that is affecting performance? Is this the right unit for the job? Was it installed correctly originally? Was it sized correctly?”

What skills does an HVAC technician need?

It’s not always a specific machine that’s broken, according to Lednyak; it could be the whole system. So critical thinking — the ability to look at a problem from different angles to hit on the right solution — is key.

Different HVAC companies may tackle problems of varying complexity. ALED Technologies tends to work on more complex HVAC systems. Lednyak says he sometimes has problems finding candidates with all the skills the job requires.

“You need to have a good sense of how the equipment works. And you need to have the ability to take a problem from the beginning to the end successfully. Someone may know how to work with their hands and with tools but may not know how to deliver a finished project.”

Though the work can be difficult, it is possible to start a career in HVAC right out of high school. Trade school is not a prerequisite to becoming an installer or technician, according to Lednyak, who prefers to train people on the job.

The best HVAC technicians are quick thinkers who naturally enjoy tackling technical problems, he says.

Another key skill is time management. In a video for prospective HVAC technicians and installers, YouTuber Yung HVAC notes that installation and technician work can be seasonal depending on the region, with six or even seven days of work required during the busiest months. But the work can be lucrative, with some technicians approaching a six-figure salary.

People skills are also beneficial since HVAC technicians often find themselves in people's homes or businesses at stressful times. The flip side is the feeling of satisfaction that comes with fixing their systems.

What might people not know about the HVAC industry?

Sustainability is rarely what draws people to the HVAC field, Lednyak says. But the social and environmental impact of HVAC technicians’ work is significant.

Ryan Katofsky, managing director at Advanced Energy Economy, says installing high-efficiency heating and cooling units is “perhaps the most tangible and impactful” job in the energy efficiency sector.

"Because HVAC systems have long, useful lives, often 20 years or more, and account for a large share of building energy use, installing high-efficiency HVAC has significant and long-lasting energy savings impacts," said Katofsky.

As buildings are electrified and efficient HVAC grows as a subset of the overall HVAC market, workers with an interest in the space have an opportunity to use their problem-solving skills to install new efficient systems and reduce energy consumption overall.

What’s the future of HVAC?

The question of how to keep expanding the HVAC workforce and attract a new generation of workers is a thorny one. Lednyak notes that the industry is “in need of regeneration.”

“Everything is changing and people need to adapt. That’s a problem with our field — the technology is changing but the people aren’t,” he said. However, he also observed that it’s not uncommon for new technicians to leave the field after just a few years.

Daniel Aldana Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, thinks that as the HVAC industry evolves, it could become a more attractive career for young people.

“When you’re trying to get 16-year-olds excited about this work, with the direction building systems are going, that’s easier to do now. HVAC, as a world of all-electric, smart systems that interface with technology, is becoming a pretty interesting sector,” said Cohen. The new generation of HVAC technicians could end up doing “more interesting, complicated projects that are less rote.”

Cohen says that HVAC technicians he has spoken to are interested in newer, more efficient technology like mini-splits and heat pumps — but inertia is holding the industry back. Cohen sees incentives as key in moving the industry to its next stage.

Cohen used his own apartment as an example. He thinks a more efficient system of mini-splits would be a natural replacement for his failing furnace, but it’s been hard to sell the concept to his landlord. (The New York Times notes that mini-splits are “easier to install than a full ducted system, more efficient than window units or central HVAC.”)

Government funding of retrofits for low-income households through programs like the Weatherization Assistance Program and a mandate for for apartment buildings are potential solutions. That would fund "a quarter to a third of homes being retrofitted,” according to Cohen.

"Grants for low-income retrofits would bring down technology and installation costs. And incentive programs for wealthier homeowners could yield retrofits for the rest of homes," he said.

In turn, Cohen argues that that type of commitment from the government would help justify training programs and encourage a new generation of technicians to regard HVAC as a viable career.

“There are all these promises about the potential for retrofits — we’ll save all this energy, create all these jobs — and then the black box is the actual work of doing it. The [technicians] are the people who are inside that black box,” said Cohen.